The Language of Feelings & the Power of Empathy

Michael Tennant knows about feelings. An empathy expert and entrepreneur — Tennant is the founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab, as well as the author of the forthcoming book The Power of Empathy: A 30-Day Path to Personal Growth and Social Change — he has made it his life’s work to spread empathy and make it easy to learn and teach.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy, though, as he told an attentive crowd at the SHE Media Co-Lab Future of Health event at SXSW, when he talked about the language of feelings and led the group through a mini empathy workshop.

“My road to getting here was a road of learning how to deal with emotions,” he said. “In 2019, just before the pandemic, I tragically lost two of my older brothers within three months of one another. With that first loss, I learned that I’ve been going through my whole life without really knowing how to witness the emotions that I was experiencing, and even worse, [without knowing] how to endure them, how to cope and move through to a place of resolution. I had to figure that out.”

Michael Tennant at SHE Media Co-Lab at SXSW held at Native on March 11, 2023 in Austin, Texas.
Daniel Cavazos for SHE Media

Tennant admitted that he fell back into the “toxic coping mechanisms” of his younger-adult years — and realized that if he continued relying on those unhealthy habits, he might soon be joining his brothers. Luckily, an existing relationship with therapy and a weekly men’s emotional leadership group helped him learn to connect with and speak about his emotions, as well as how to move through them.

One important piece of that work: “I had to put together a paradigm that made sense for me to heal through,” he said. That started with acknowledging and recognizing the emotions in his body. Meditation helped, as did a journaling habit that starts with his personal value statement and purpose statement. (Go to to discover your own core values and your purpose statement.)

“Every morning to this day, I write that purpose statement at the top of my journal, I check in with my body, and I make an assessment of where I need to focus my time and my energy that day,” he said.

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A second important element was movement — specifically yoga and running — especially when dealing with “the more difficult emotions of fear, anger, and sadness that were coming up on a daily basis,” he explained.

Those practices helped Tennant remain grounded when the pandemic hit. “When our whole world was up-ended, I was able to remain grounded and almost catalog the process that I took to heal from those two losses,” he said. They also helped him through the devastation of the murder of George Floyd. (Somewhat presciently, Tennant shared that he wrote an essay the night before Floyd’s death about his feelings after seeing a ‘God Bless Our President’ sticker in the drive-thru of a Starbucks in Florida, “and the experience of going through life, experiencing shocks, not knowing how to notice them, how to label them, or what to do next.”)

“From that point forward, my life has been dedicated to bringing tools of empathy to spaces that don’t have them,” he shared. “And quite frankly, that’s most of the spaces that we exist in, most of the jobs that we return to.”

Today, Tennant is devoted to sharing his learnings on what he calls the five phases of empathy — and he gave the crowd at the Future of Health a sneak peek into exactly what that means.

The Five Phases of Empathy

The first phase — and the phase Tennant’s talk focused on — is the language of feelings. “By looking inward, sensing those emotions, gaining information from them, I was able to pour into my purpose, using the purpose as a lens through which to process what should I be doing next,” he said.

The language of feelings is a shared lexicon around empathy, he explains. And what is empathy? Tennant explains three types: Cognitive empathy; Somatic empathy; and Affective empathy.

To tap into your cognitive empathy, to understand emotions on an intellectual level, it helps to understand the five core emotions — joy, fear, anger, shame, and sadness — and how they show up for you.

“Just by having ease of access to those five core emotions, you can begin to start getting curious about what it is that you’re experiencing,” he said.

“Somatic empathy, or emotional empathy, is the science that we actually feel our emotions in our bodies prior to being able to make an intellectual connection to what it is that we’re feeling.”

Finally, there’s affective empathy — understanding and sharing someone else’s feelings. “Understanding emotions on a cognitive level, understanding emotions on a somatic level, and trusting your gut,” Tennant explained. “The key thing is being able to lower your ego and [be] attuned to what’s needed in the situation. So that is our goal as leaders as we strengthen our empathy: How do we trust our inner voices, and do what’s needed?”

Tennant told the crowd that joy, for him, can feel like an effervescence on his skin; anger can show up as heat in his body; and fear can show up as tension in his chest. Of course, those emotions may show up differently for you.

Tennant then led the SXSW crowd in an empathy exercise using cards from the Actually Curious Happy Hour Edition. The questions are intended to help people explore the things that make them happy, from dreams to cherished memories, and act as a stimulus. “And what our job is, is to check in to see if there’s any physical reaction that we receive after hearing and visualizing the question,” Tennant told the crowd. “We’re going to check in and scan for any change that we find. Whatever shows up, we’re just going to notice and take note. [And] we’re going to make an attempt to label the sensations using the five core emotions.”

The first question Tennant asked: ‘What did 12-year-old you want to be when they grew up?’

More important than the actual answer — for Tennant, for his volunteer, for everyone in the crowd, and for anyone reading this right now — is the feeling the question brings up, the way it physically shows up in your body, and how you process it. What matters is having a language for it.

“This exercise sits within the realm of mindfulness,” Tennant explained. “We just used a card game to be that stimulus to practice how our emotions show up. But in any moment, for the people in the room who’ve ever experienced being gaslit or have subtle microaggressions, [and] you didn’t know what was going on in your body, you now have a tool. You can trust that feeling. You can slow down, you can label that feeling, and then you can choose what you want to do — once you know what it is that you’re feeling.”

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